16 September 2011

Startup Cemetery ~ Parochial Kendall Honorium

The Entrepreneur Walk of Fame in Kendall Square, Cambridge has just been unveiled -- and I'm pretty disappointed. Unfortunately, it really ought to be called the Kendall Startup Cemetery since honorees are remembered via carved memorial tombstones spread incoherently throughout the Marriott plaza.

What's worse, the selection committee picked a rather parochial and narrowly unrepresentative lineup of initial entrepreneurs: seven old white US men. Really? If nothing else this is a strategic and PR blunder of the first order. With over half of the selectees already dead maybe hence the granite tombstones instead of a 21st century modern medium? And with fully six from the electro/IT sector alone and just one from biotech/lifesci, you might reasonably ask what about energy, finance, transportation, entertainment, food, and the other dominant super-sectors which most people care about?

Plus, while both Hewlett and Packard were separately saluted as co-founders of HP, only Gates and Jobs and Edison and Swanson were listed as "Founder" of their ventures. But venturing is a team sport -- i.e. what about Allen and Wozniak and Thomson and Boyer and the other actual co-founders on the startups? These unacknowledged co-creators are mostly the people who actually first built things. So what kind of mediocre message are we conveying when only the promoter-frontman is acknowledged as seemingly the solo entrepreneur?

Beyond this, the selectees are not even our local Hub heroes since all but one are west-coasters, which makes it look like we have to borrow glory. Yes, entrepreneurs are everywhere -- but then why are none of these honorees internationals from beyond US? -- i.e. where 95% of humanity lives on Planet Earth and where over a quarter of MIT students come from? Where are the Indian, the Chinese, and the Middle Easterner or African, each representing roughly 1/5 of global population? Only three are MIT alums, so maybe that's a subtle stab for diversity. But how about alums like BOSE of speakers fame, ADLittle founder of management consulting, IMPei the architect, Kalmus of Technicolor, Dorrance of Campbell Soup, Nickerson who co-founded Gillette, Olsen of Digital Equipment, Baddour of AMGEN, or Noyce of Intel -- all higher impact entrepreneurs in their day or exemplars from different sectors. And, finally, where are any of our women entrepreneurs? None? Zero?! Please.

When I originally proposed the basic idea of a Hall of Heroes at MIT many years ago, at least I suggested a thoughtfully diverse pool. There are plenty of compelling candidates to pick from, including inventors, creators, and entrepreneurs worldwide! Until those in charge of this memorial hurry up and fix things, this attempted honorium is really ill-considered and embarrassingly old-school. We here should be able to salute a properly complete cross-section of our authentically real creatives.

1 comment:

Tim Rowe said...

Hi Joost,

You are right! The folks honored yesterday in the first "class" of inductees were indeed white, American men.

So you are aware, the Trustees, Nomination Committee, and Selection Committee who set the criteria and who made the decisions are a diverse group, including people of African American, Indian, Asian, and other backgrounds, including both men and women.

So why did this group select this particular set of honorees this year?

To begin with, we purposefully chose to focus only on US honorees this year because we did not have the breadth of expertise in our nomination and selection bodies to properly weigh the contributions of entrepreneurs outside the US. We decided we would "walk before we ran", and explicitly decided to narrow to Americans this year, get the "Walk" established, and then broaden in subsequent years. It is important that when we do so that we build credible nomination and selection bodies that are properly able to weigh the contributions of entrepreneurs elsewhere in the world in an unbiased way. Not a simple task.

We agree that this was a real limitation this year, but do keep in mind that we expect to honor 100s of entrepreneurs in the Walk of Fame. Think of this as a beginning, not an end.

In another conscious narrowing decision for this first year, we focused on technology-innovation based entrepreneurs. We built committees that know this particular field well. In subsequent years we may choose to focus on other categories of entrepreneurs, and to structure accordingly. Does the founder of a business like Starbucks deserve recognition? We will tackle that question.

Could we have done it all at once in the first year--covering every nation and every "category" of entrepreneur at once? Perhaps, but that would bring its own problems. What *single* entrepreneur would you honor from China? And from what category? I believe our phasing approach will serve us better.

As to who we picked amongst American technology entrepreneurs, as Emily Green, Chairman of the Yankee Group, and a member of the selection committee, put it to me: in this first year, the committee focused on selecting those individuals that it felt had made the biggest contributions, period. The committee did not find others who had made bigger contributions.

This said, I think everyone involved will freely acknowledge that this was a first effort and I would be shocked if anyone involved thought the process was perfect.

The good news is that this is a living effort. Each year we have the opportunity to make up for the shortcomings of the previous years. We can make it better, and better, and better.

As the chair of the Nomination Committee, I would like to invite you to participate as a nominator for next year. Lets make this great together.

Tim Rowe
Entrepreneur Walk of Fame